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IN 1845, Marx and Engels made their now-famous observation that “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, ie the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”
Transmitted through education, culture, the media and other institutions of knowledge, these dominant ideas not only govern how Western elites perceive their own societies but also non-Western ones.
Writing more than a century after Marx and Engels — but differing in their methodology Edward Said and Alain Grosrichard argued that capitalist-imperialist objectives in the Middle East have over time informed numerous distortions, misrepresentations and stereotypes found across a wide spectrum of media from British Victorian travelogues of Egypt to French Enlightenment essays on “Oriental despotism” to late 20th-century US journalism on the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.
More recently, scholars have repurposed this “Orientalism” thesis to show how Western writers, reporters and intellectuals have legitimised, excused, downplayed or just plain ignored the often brutal exercise of Western military, economic, strategic, cultural and diplomatic power elsewhere in the global South.
In this context, the case of the Philippines is unusual and nuanced. By the mid-19th century, much of the archipelago had been a Spanish colony for almost 300 years, its native populations oppressed and impoverished by ruthless, land-grabbing bureaucrats and Catholic priests.
In the 1840s, the US naval commander Charles Wilkes and the Scottish merchant Robert MacMicking visited Manila and wrote about its mismanagement by the Spanish, subtly hinting that it was time for a more competent, efficient and Protestant empire to take control.
Free market capitalism, they and other contemporaries argued, was badly needed to discipline and incentivise the “lazy native” Filipinos, whose “lethargy” had come to infect their Spanish overlords like a tropical disease.
Wilkes and MacMicking’s remarks were prescient. Eager to exploit the region’s resources and establish a strategic outpost in Asia, the burgeoning US empire annexed the Philippines from Spain in 1898.
To suppress a popular independence movement, the US committed a white supremacist genocide (more politely known today as the Philippine-American War) that killed anywhere from 200,000 to a million Filipinos.
US troops exterminated women and children, burned down villages of civilians and tortured suspects with methods such as waterboarding, which today we more readily associate with the contemporary War on Terror.
Boy’s own adventure novels of this period by H Irving Hancock and Edward L Stratemeyer (better known for his Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries) mobilised a range of literary techniques to conceal or distort US war crimes.
Stratemeyer’s novel The Campaign of the Jungle (1900) was particularly audacious in this regard — in one scene, a US infantryman kidnaps a native woman and turns her into a human shield before abandoning her in a forest.
It is, wrote Stratemeyer, a stroke of “good luck” that the woman is a “relative” of a rebel leader who will not fire on them for fear of harming her.
From 1898 to 1941, the US ruled the Philippines colonially, extending rather than reducing Spanish cultures of corruption, racial segregation and political repression.
During this time, Western media and literature shifted from representing Filipinos as terrorist villains to childlike or effeminate beings in need of educating and civilising by the white man.
The US architect Daniel Burnham began renovating Manila’s roads, public buildings, parks and canals in order to, as Burnham wrote in 1905, “create a unified city equal to the greatest of the Western world with the unparalleled and priceless addition of a tropical setting.”
Popular US journalism, travel writing by Frank G Carpenter and memoirs by the likes of the “Thomasite” colonial schoolteacher Mary H Fee began to imagine Manila as a simulation of a US city, though one with tell-tale imperfections.
After World War II, when the Philippines gained ostensible independence but remained in economic and political fealty to US “dollar imperialism,” DeLoris Stevenson and Maslyn Williams presented Manila as a crude, kitsch spoof of New York or Los Angeles.
As the British-born travel writer Pico Iyer put it in 1988, “Master of every American gesture, conversant with every Western song [...] the Filipino plays minstrel to the entire continent.”
The 1990s saw an increasing number of British tabloid reporters describing the Philippines as a sleazy paradise of sex workers and mail order brides.
Unsurprisingly, none of these stories acknowledge that sex tourism was — and still is — an outgrowth of the Philippines’ subject position in global capitalism. Compelled by poverty, many Filipinas have become just another product for sale on an international market catering to jaded male desire.
Since 2016 and the election of the quasi-fascist strongman Rodrigo Duterte, the tone of Western constructions of the Philippines has changed significantly.
With justification, the reportage of James Fenton and Jonathan Miller has focused on the appalling campaign of extrajudicial murder Duterte has directed against narcotics suspects and political opponents, which has thus far claimed over 30,000 lives according to some estimates.
While these writers have provided a much-needed boost to Western public awareness about such atrocities, their narrow liberal analyses have overlooked the complicity of the West in Duterte’s rise.
Over the last four years, British arms corporations have sold £88 million of weapons to the Philippines and Joe Biden — hailed over-optimistically as a major improvement on Donald Trump (who got on famously with Duterte) — is in the process of vending $2 billion worth of assault helicopters to the regime, despite objections on human rights grounds by some of his own Democratic senators.
Furthermore, the British and US media are reluctant to mention the role of US neoimperial meddling in the Philippines and the neoliberal policies of the World Bank and IMF in contributing to exactly the kind of disillusionment that drove millions to vote for Duterte’s knee-jerk nationalism.
While an article this length can’t do justice to it, a counter-narrative has been challenging these Western cliches and simplifications about the Philippines for decades.
From the short political fiction of Manuel Arguilla in the 1930s to the contemporary travel writing of the Australian aid worker Tom Bamforth, progressive writers — Filipino or otherwise — have worked valiantly to provide a more balanced picture of the Philippines, highlight the deleterious effects of imperialism and global capitalism on its society and debunk harmful, wrong-headed stereotypes.
America is in the Heart (1943), Carlos Bulosan’s classic novel drawing on his experiences as a migrant labourer in the Great Depression, reveals the hypocrisy of white US racists who profit from running brothels and casinos while “victim-blaming” the Filipinos who use them.
Such resistance on the level of representation is a vital dimension of wider political action that must redress the power imbalance between the Western-led rich world and the poor world to which the Philippines continues to belong.
Tom Sykes’s new book Imagining Manila: Literature, Empire and Orientalism (Bloomsbury/I.B. Tauris) will be launched on April 8 at 7pm — see www.mstar.link/Sykes .
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